New And Old Behaviors

Trade conferences are like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates. You can plan and design discussions along certain lines, but you never know exactly what you are going to get. On the second day of the Mobile Insider Summit, my intention was to design a series of conversations that focused close to point of sale and toward the endpoint of so-called “consumer journey.” A keynote from Microsoft's Christian Johanneson outlined the interesting relationship that mobile creates between manufacturer and retailer. That moved into a related panel discussion about mobile enhancing the retail experience. From there I added a panel that further delved into local and what is going on there. And finally we ended with an exploration of tracking consumers across screens.

Interestingly, one of the themes that emerged in the discussions circled around consumer behavior and the degree to which mobile technology must draft on and leverage existing behaviors -- and the extent to which these technologies are transforming behaviors.

I queried Christian about who really is using their mobile phones in-store, since it is not an established ritual or behavior for most people. He told us that it is precisely the kind of shopper you most want -- the heavy omnichannel researcher. They are the ones most likely to see the advantages of using phones in-store.

On the other hand, in the panel on in-store augmentation, Catalina Marketing's John Caron told us how surprised they have been with the range of segments using their grocery store “Scan-It” technology. This is the system whereby dedicated handheld devices or smartphones are used to scan items in-aisle during the shopping trip. It gives the retailer the opportunity to send offers synchronized to the user loyalty card and even their place in the store. Caron says they are seeing adoption among all demos, and I would concur.

As I have written about in the past, I am using the Scan-It technology at my local Giant. One of the things my wife and I noticed lately is an accelerant effect of in-store use. At first, there were only a few handheld devices missing from the wall of scanners available at the front door. But over time, my wife and I noticed people watching us and others use the devices and ask about the process. The last time we were in the local Giant, the store explained that no scanners were available because they were all being recharged. The viral effect of people seeing other people use the devices effectively in-store seemed to make a big impact.

There were a number of discussions and some disagreement over the course of the morning about how much mobile can change behaviors and how much devices are simply simplifying existing habits. Some argued that we have already seen substantial examples of mobile devices actually introducing new behaviors to our lives. Adam Guy of Millward Brown used SMS as an example. It is the kind of communications technology no one could have dreamed would engage us. Was there a precedent for communicating with one another with a 140-character limit?

Gabriel Cheng of M&C Saatchi made the larger conceptual point that devices are helping to drive what we might call the expectation of immediacy. People are expecting and beginning to feel entitled to having answers here and now to just about any question or need. One in-market example of this, I would add, is the same-day booking phenomenon for travel brands. Sure, people might land or drive into a new city and hit the Yellow Pages to find nearby hotels, but most people would have considered that a dangerous crapshoot just a few years ago. We not only have a new supply of discounted unsold inventory online, but a mobile technology that allows people access it easily and much more efficiently than was ever possible -- even when that inventory was mainly on the desktop.

As a cultural and media historian I used to teach a mantra that came to us from cultural anthropology. Ritual and habit are deeply engrained parts of culture that take time to evolve and are never easily changed. The first ten years of the Internet represents a graveyard of companies built on the premise that they could change behaviors – getting people to put their calendars online, to buy pet food on Web sites, to collaborate on projects. Some of those behaviors did evolve over time, but many didn't. In contemporary times, arguably, the mobile check-in was trying in vain to change consumer behavior.

The truth, however, lies somewhere in between those two ideas. People's behaviors do change as a result of new technology. But I still would argue that they change in ways almost impossible to predict reliably or to influence in a pointed way. Media history has shown that new technologies and forms end up being embraced in ways their inventors and first movers did not anticipate. Look at the earliest history of film, radio, even TV and the Internet. Let's just use the latest platform -- the Web -- as an example. Many people expected this platform to be a logical extension of the print and TV media that preceded it. They treated it as a new newsstand. But it turns out that people came to it with tasks or were treating it more like a phone – as one-to-one communication. Email was the first killer app for the Internet, followed by search and then social. New behaviors emerged on the new platform, but they were being driven more by consumer desire and need, not technologies pressing new behaviors on people.

For video from the Summit, visit our archive page and stream for live coverage.

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